THE Pilsdon Community in Bridport, Dorset, is gathering an oral history of the community in celebration of its 60th anniversary this year.
Inspired by Radio 4’s The Listening Project, Mary Davies, a historian and community volunteer, suggested that the experiences of volunteers, former members, and guests be recorded in a “memory shed” in the grounds.
The project, “A Place of Shelter: An oral history of the Pilsdon Community, 1958-2018” received a £10,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in April.
More than 30 interviews have been conducted so far. The first was with Gaynor Smith, who founded the community with her husband, Percy, in 1958. “It represented a refuge of some kind; a place where people could just be themselves, where people didn’t have to pretend,” she said.
The community offers a place of refuge and recuperation for people in crisis. This includes recovery from addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness, or for people who have fallen into poverty and homelessness. It also provides a place of retreat and reflection for people who are exploring a vocation to community life.
Matt Swan first heard about the community in the book Utopian Dreams, by Tobias Jones. Mr Swan wanted a fresh start after his marriage broke down, and, having lived and worked in London for 14 years, was inspired to live a more sustainable life.
“I started off by staying as a volunteer in Pilsdon for a year,” he said. “It was like being in a family, giving a great sense of peace and belonging in a beautiful place.”
Mr Swan went on to buy a small plot of land in Wales, off the grid, and started a small market-gardening operation with 24 beds and a 15-metre polytunnel. “As I’d been living in a caravan there, I came back to Pilsdon as a volunteer every winter for six months.” Earlier this year, he married a fellow volunteer, whom he met in 2015.
Pilsdon residents — about 25 to 30 people at any given time — live and work together on a 13-acre farm, which has a vegetable garden and a small dairy herd. There is also a chapel, where services are held four times a day for guests or wayfarers.
Wayfarers can stay overnight for the week or weekend, have meals, work on the farm, and use the community facilities, which include a laundry and a secondhand-clothes shop — but visits can be repeated only on a six-week cycle.
Aaron, who had been living at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, came to Pilsdon as a guest, and still visits regularly. “I wanted to work with animals, especially pigs, and had the chance to raise a sow called Saffron, from when she was a baby,” he said.
“Pilsdon helped me to benefit from community life, and then found me a flat in Lyme Regis, where I have been for a year now. It’s still great to come up here every six weeks or so for a night or a weekend.
“I find a sense of serenity through the religious side, which gives guests the chance to participate as they choose. You are always faced with yourself in community. There is nowhere to hide, and I did have a few misunderstandings. I was taught here, when that happened, to always make it up by the end of the day.”
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicolas Holtam, is due to preach at a festive eucharist at the community on Sunday 14 October. All are welcome.
The community is currently seeking both volunteers and community members.To contribute to the project, email Mary Davies at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part three of the religious life series, page 29